Yesterday morning The Telegraph published an open letter backing the Tories from 103 senior business leaders, ranging from BP boss Bob Dudley to Pru chief exec Tidjane Thiam. By the evening a rival letter was doing the social media rounds signed by a smattering of businesspeople and celebrities, but mainly by workers on the much maligned zero hours contracts.
Although the second letter, published in The Mirror and signed by longtime Labour-supporting ad man Trevor Beattie, ex-Blue Peter presenter Peter Duncan and former BBC chairman Sir Michael Lyons, doesn’t directly reference the first it’s quite obviously a riposte.
‘We come from all walks of life, this is what Britain looks like,’ it declared – in other words, not like the top echelons of British business.
‘A symbol of the failure of this Government’s economic plan is the proliferation of zero hour contracts which has helped fuel the low wage, low skill economy that is letting down working people and letting down Britain,’ it continued. ‘We need a Labour Government to put working people first.’
The first point to make is it’s obviously a good thing to have dissenting voices getting top billing in national newspapers – we are a democracy after all. You’d guess the first letter is reasonably representative of the majority of leaders of large businesses, but it’s less clear what proportion of the approximately 1.8 million workers on zero hours contracts (around 6% of people in employment as of August 2014) would agree the signatories of the second letter.
(Although designer and signatory Wayne Hemingway was caught out by the Independent advertising for an expenses-only intern and employing zero hours construction workers on a Margate project. Awkward.)
Zero hours (i.e. no guarantee of a minimum number of hours) is a tricky topic, with critics claiming they are unstable and even exploitative. Around a third of workers on those contracts say they want more hours, compared with just 10% of people in normal employment. But 38% of those surveyed by HR body the CIPD described themselves as working full-time.
Employers argue they allow for flexibility – and our relatively supple labour market is one reason unemployment has fallen further and faster than in the beleaguered Eurozone. Equally, flexibility can be good for employees too – for example, allowing parents to work less during school holidays and students to take on more hours then.
The Coalition’s pledge to end ‘exclusive’ zero hours contracts (where you can’t work for another employer, despite having no minimum hours guarantee) is a good one. But the evidence on the impact of zero hours on workers’ lives, businesses and the economy is still patchy, so Miliband’s pledge yesterday to give workers the right to demand permanent contracts after 12 weeks and guarantee compensation if shifts are cancelled at short notice looks hasty.
Back to the letter (and the General Election) – it’s yet more evidence of a gulf between business and the general public. MT got everyone from David Cameron and shadow business secretary Chuka Ummuna to former Thomas Cook chief exec Harriet Green and serial entrepreneur Luke Johnson to air their views on why business is so mistrusted and what can be done about it – and there’s no short, quick answer. The divide and conquer politics of election definitely won’t help, though.